The Sky is Falling; the Sky is Falling! The 4 Stages of a Word

The publication of the 4th Edition of the Collins Official Scrabble Words book has resulted in the unsurprising flurry of articles that predict the demise – again – of the English language as we know it. Now that players of that grand old game can score points for thanx, newb, lotsa, and shizzle – words that even the WordPress spellchecker angrily underlines in bright red – how long can it be before xneetrb  and ffydlea are allowed? Hell, why not randomly toss all seven of your tiles onto the board and line ’em up with a triple-word score on the basis that “Well, it could be a word someone has said.”

Collins Official Scrabble Words book cover

But although “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” [1] might have choked on his early morning cup of tea whilst reading this morning’s edition of the Times (or more likely the Daily Mail), and Miss Manners [2] may gently suggest that twerking and sexting should be avoided during family game night, Western civilization is unlikely to collapse overnight, and tomorrow morning we’re not going to find ourselves having to pledge allegiance to marauding gangs of thugs and murderers intent on establishing tribal fiefdoms in some vicious Mad Max post-apocalypse scenario. No, although scrabblers might now be able to score 10 points for tweep (a person who follows you on Twitter) and 6 points for eew (meaning “eew!”) the rest of us can get on with our everyday lives, listening to some awesome tuneage or indulging in a spot of facetime with our bezzy while showrooming for a pair of dench new shooties on the web [3].

The teachable moment – and there’s always one of those with a Dudes post – is that what we’re really seeing here is how emotionally vested we can be when it comes to language, even when we might think we’re not. More specifically, the adoption of new words into the global vocabulary challenges our perceptions of what we consider “right” or “wrong” in relation to how we communicate. If nothing else, this sort of incident reminds us how changeable our vocabulary can be, and the more linguistically conservative we are, the more the new words rankle.

Picture of the word WORD

Creative Commons License from Marla Reyes-McDavis: http://bit.ly/1Syb3M2

The first step toward a word becoming “real” is its adoption into spoken language. People were talking about twerking before they were writing about it, and in general, it’s a rule of thumb for lexicographers [4] to assume that no matter how far back you can track the written form of a word, it will have been around in the oral form earlier than that. This first stage is also the “testing ground” for a word because once a word is born, it now has to survive in a nasty, brutish, and short linguistic pool, where other hopeful lexical monsters are competing for everyone’s attention. Many newly coined words can suddenly appear, shine brightly for a short period, then die without saying so much as a goodbye. Do you remember cell yell meaning “to talk loudly on a phone,”  annoyicon, the logo that hogs the bottom corner of a TV program, or even neuticles, defined as “fake testicles for neutered pets?” All of these were nominated in the American Dialect Society’s “Words of the Year” contest from 1999 to 2002 yet have since disappeared and failed to enter the Scrabble dictionary.

The second phase of a word’s journey to becoming “real” is when it gets written down. Lots of times. Anyone can coin a word at anytime – like preet, a verb meaning “to accidentally post a tweet before you’ve actually finished it, ending up in a half-finished tweet – derived from pre– and tweet,” but unless other people start using it and propagating it, it becomes a hapax legomenon and, like the psittacosaurus [5], disappears from the earth leaving only the word and a lost hope.

Provided a word can live long and prosper enough to catch the eyes of writers and distributors of content (no-one writes “stories” or “articles” these days – they provide “content,” like the literary equivalent of baked beans or tomato soup), professional lexicographers can gently guide it to the third stage of its journey to legitimacy and enshrine it in a dictionary. And I use the indefinite article on purpose because there is no single definitive dictionary but a small library of different ones. You can check out our previous post entitled The Top 7 Online Dictionaries – and Why is you want to find out a little more about how to choose which reference works to choose. Once a word gets into a dictionary, we’re now at the point where people begin to get either excited or aggrieved, depending on their point of view.

There’s actually a fourth stage that a word can go through and that’s to become an entry in the only dictionary that I would dare to call the dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary. For a word to be included in this venerable collection it has to have been around for “a reasonable amount of time” and has reached “a level of general currency where it is unselfconsciously used with the expectation of being understood.” But like the Eagles’ Hotel California, once you check in to the OED, “you can never leave.” A significant raison d’être of the OED is that it provides not just a definition of a word but a history. This is important because we all know that meanings change over time and it’s essential for readers to be able to see and understand this. For example, someone under 25 watching an old episode of the Flintstones cartoon show might wonder what on earth is going one when they hear the theme song say that “we’ll have a gay old time.” By looking at the history of the word gay in the OED, it becomes clear that there has been a significant shift in its primary meaning since the end of the 1950s [6].

So to summarize, here are the Stages of a Word:

Stage 1: Oral Adoption
Stage 2: Physical Transcription
Stage 3: Editorial Consecration
Stage 4: Archival Immortalization

One last thing to bear in mind it that although a word can become immortalized in some archive like the OED, it doesn’t mean it lives forever in our spoken vocabulary. Sadly the OED is filled with the tombstones of long-forgotten words that only ever get resurrected when folks like the Speech Dudes roll back the stone and let them wander the internet for a brief time. Like snool, meaning “to crawl meekly and humbly (R.I.P. 1895); proficiat, “a payment given as a welcoming gesture or token of goodwill upon a person’s entry into a new position” (R.I.P. 1636) [7]; flird, “to sneer or gibe” (R.I.P. 1513); and leggiadrous, “graceful, elegant” (R.I.P. 1702).

And for those struggling with having to come to terms with the new Official Scrabble words, they should take heart that perhaps shizzle and newb will join snool and flird in the not-to-distant future.

Notes
[1] A generic character used in the UK to describe someone with right-wing views who writes letters to newspapers with the sign-off “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disgusted_of_Tunbridge_Wells

[2] Judith Martin, a syndicated American writer on matters of Etiquette. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Martin

[3] Yes, I knew you’d want to know!
tuneage: music.
facetime: to talk with someone using Apple’s FaceTime app.bezzy: Best friend.
showrooming: Looking at an item in a store and using your smart phone to find a better price elsewhere.
dench: excellent.
shooties: shoes that cover the ankles.

[4] The word lexicographer meaning “someone who creates dictionaries” is familiar enough in the 21st century but it’s only a few hundred years old, with its first written example coming from 1658 in a book gloriously entitled Topsall’s History of Four-Footed Beasts in reference to “Calepine and other Lexicographers of his gang.” More famously it appears in Dr. Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language defined as “…a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” It seems to have been coined at that time because there are no instances of earlier versions of the word to be found, and its clearly Greek origin ( λεξικόν = a word-book or dictionary + γράϕος = a writer) suggests something made up by academics – which is what scholars are wont to do.

[5] Pity the poor psittacosaurus, a 6-foot long parrot-headed saurian that could run around on two legs, scarfing up as many nuts as it could find. It lived during the Cretaceous period and so tragically never even got a bit part in Spielberg’s classic Jurassic Park movie. Its name comes from the Greek ψιττακός meaning “parrot” and so-called because of the shape of its head.

psittacosaurus[6] There are many online histories of the word gay out there so I’m not inclined to write another but it is worth using the word to comment on the fact that a word can have many meanings simultaneously but that at any given time there is a most frequent or primary value. In the late 1950s, when the Flintstones tune was written, the word gay was, in fact, already being used as slang for homosexual, but it wasn’t its primary meaning. Evidence for this can be seen in a quotation from Gore Videl’s 1948 The City and the Pillar where he writes, “[In New York] the words ‘fairy’ and ‘pansy’ were considered to be in bad taste. It was fashionable to say a person was ‘gay’.” The fact that he has to define the term suggests that it had not yet become a common meaning. By the beginning of the 20th century, the primary meaning had shifted to the point that its use to mean “carefree and lively” is rare.

[7] The current equivalent to this is golden hello defined as “a substantial sum offered to a senior executive, etc., as an inducement to change employers, and paid in advance when the new post is accepted.” This was coined in the early 1980s along the lines of the golden handshake, which is “a gratuity given as compensation for dismissal or compulsory retirement.”

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2 responses to “The Sky is Falling; the Sky is Falling! The 4 Stages of a Word

  1. Finally got around to checking out your site. How refreshingly erudite. I’m old (and female btw) and jealous that I haven’t had the explosion of professional information via Internet all my career. However most of the blogs get “treacle-y”. Thanks for bringing us back to a linguistics perspective.

    • Thanks for taking the time to check out the site and read the articles. I love the word “treacly” – it certainly deserves its moment in the sun occasionally otherwise it might make its way to the bargain basement of lost words! We try as best we can to avoid the more glurgy or saccharin-infused posts, partly because there are already too many of them out there but mainly because I’m a miserable old misanthropic curmudgeon. I also aim for erudition that admittedly can lapse in pretentiousness and purple prose because I love words and language, and in a world where “writing” has been replaced by “content” aimed at the reading level of a 5-year-old, pushing the literary envelope isn’t a bad thing. So keep reading and enjoy the new posts as they emerge from the keyboard: I wish I had more time to be more regular but sadly I’m losing the battle against the laws of temporal physics 🙂

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